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Presentations and the "Laws of Simplicity"

Maeda_cover John Maeda's book, The Laws of Simplicity, is a good quick read. I love the clear presentation of the ideas in the book and the fact that the author imposed a limit of 100 pages for himself, an idea consistent with his Third Law: "Savings in time feels like simplicity." This book is not the final word on the topic of course, and in fact more is to come soon on the topic by MIT press. While the book is not perfect — the acronyms (SHE, SLIP, etc.) complicated things for me a bit — it is still better than most other books on simplicity aimed at business people. I must have three or four other thick business books on my shelf with the word "simplicity" in the title. Long winded, business books that espouse the need for simplicity today yet are filled with academic "blah, blah, blah" to get them to the obligatory length for a "serious business book." Maeda's book is different and it's fresh.

Much of the book's content can be found on Maeda's blog, The Laws of Simplicity. So if you want to save some money, it's basically all online. I think it was Seth Godin who said books are now a kind of "leave behind" for people once they have heard your story. People expect some sort of hard copy even if it is all online. If it is "your latest book" so much the better. There is just something about a book in the hand that is so much more "real" and "engaging" than the seemingly ephemeral text on a screen. My copy of Maeda's book (which I've read twice) is now rendered "very used" with folded page corners and pages filled with notes to myself, underlined passages, sketches, and even a coffee stain or two. (Yes, I know that this style of writing in books shocks some people, but at least it keeps them from borrowing my favorite books <g>). I'm buying several copies of The Laws of Simplicity and giving them to friends for Christmas. Its approachability and brevity make it a great gift for the busy entrepreneur. 

Maeda organizes the book around what he calls the Ten Laws of Simplicity. I read each law with presentations in mind, but you can apply the laws to really any design problem or business or technology challenge. In future I'll discuss the first nine laws in the context of presentations, but for now I'll discuss only Maeda's tenth law which he calls "The One." If you can't remember the nine laws, Maeda suggests, then just remember the tenth law in the book's final chapter. The tenth law is meant to encapsulate the other nine. In this chapter Maeda talks about what he calls the "champagne approach" which lead to this single simplified expression, or the Tenth Law:

"Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful."

The champagne approach: "Become like bubbles in a glass of champagne, floating upward in unexpected, elegantly fluid ways."
Maeda's "champagne approach" was inspired by the French rugby coach, Jean-Pierre Elissalde, who assessed that the Japanese national team (which he would coach), though technically solid, were too predictable. Their mechanical precision was too easy to anticipate and to stop. They needed to play on intuition and gut feel as much as calculated precision. Like the Japanese rugby team, we too need to become like bubbles in a glass of champagne, floating upward in unexpected, elegantly fluid ways. Learn to operate on intuition not just intellect. It is not just about mechanics and doing everything "technically correct." Doing it "by the book" or "by the numbers" is rarely a good approach in a live presentation, an activity which is very much a human one and requires a human touch.

Below are Maeda's three keys that comprise the Tenth Law.

Key 1: AWAY. More appears like less simply moving it far, far away.
Maeda refers to examples such as the simple Google homepage which of course sits atop a very complex network of computers and databases. For the end user Google is supremely simple, visually and otherwise. The result is local, Maeda says, and it's made simple by moving the actual work to a location far away. In the world of the 20-minute or even one-hour presentation, it is not possible to show or to talk about all of the background, all of the research, past failures, the reams of data, etc. that support your conclusion or have served as the antecedent to your current opinions about the issue you are today presenting. So, given time limits and the limits of the medium (an ephemeral live talk rather than material documentation in the form of a 400-page book), you state your case and give the appropriate evidence to support your story, but most of the background or details about that evidence are not introduced during your talk. This does not mean that those details are not important or that by removing it far away (figuratively) that you are embarking on a journey of superficiality. Many presenters fail because they did not first think hard about how and what to "remove far away."

If you try to tell them everything, you tell them nothing. I am not suggesting you water down your story to talking points and the repetition of simple statements for a mass audience, a technique favored by politicians and ad agencies pushing bubble gum and potato chips. Instead, by moving important material far away, for the moment, you can make your message more powerful. In the context of presentations, moving info away can help you and the audience see the forest for the trees.


Key 2: OPEN. Openness simplifies complexity.
"There are signs," says Maeda, "that a 'for free' open approach can lead to a 'for a fee' approach." If selling anything requires trust on the part of the buyer, it's odd that more organizations do not get that if you have an open approach and even "give it away" to some degree that this can lead to very good long-term benefits for both the organization and the customer. Maeda uses the example of the "Ruby on Rails" Web frame work by 37signals which is free but has related for-pay services. There is greater risk in an open approach -- whether we're talking about presentations or business in general -- but there is the possibility for greater reward as well. It's up to you. It's not easy and it has risks, risks too great for many perhaps. As Maeda points out, "I Love You" for example is perhaps the risky phrase of all, yet the rewards are immeasurable, are they not? An open approach to your presentations, or even to your approach to life in general, requires a belief in yourself (and your message, your mission, service, etc.) and the courage to muster up an equally risky phrase: "I Trust You."


Key 3: POWER. Use less, gain more.
Here Maeda is talking about power, energy, battery life, etc. However, the application of "Use less, gain more" can go beyond energy. One could apply it to any resource including time. Time in fact may be our most precious resource of all, now more than ever. There are many ways to look at time. Usually we think about time in terms of "How can I save more time?" Sure time is a constraint for us, but when planning a presentation, what if we took the notion of "time saving" and looked at it from the point of view of our audience instead of our own personal desires to do things more quickly and save time? What if it wasn't just about "our time" but it was about "their time"? When I am in the audience, I appreciate it so much when I am in the presence of a speaker who is dynamic, has done his homework, has prepared compelling visuals which add rather than bore, and generally makes me happy I have attended. What I hate more than anything — and I know you do too — is the feeling I get when I realize I am at the beginning of a wasted hour ahead of me.


But does your approach save time?

Garr_in_starbucksOK, so sometimes the approach I advocate may use more time not less time for you to prepare, but the time you are saving for your audience can be huge. Again, the question is: Is it always about saving time for ourselves? Is it not important to save time for others? When I save time for myself I am pleased. But when I save time for others by not only not wasting their time but instead by sharing something important to them, I feel inspired, energized, and rewarded. I can save time on the front end, but I may waste more time for others on the back end. For example, if I give a completely worthless one-hour long death-by-PPT presentation 10 times to groups averaging 20 people, that equals 200 hours of wasted time. But if I instead put in the time, say, 25 hours or more of planning and designing the message, slides, etc. over a couple of weeks, then I can instead *give* the world 200 hours of a worthwhile, memorable experience. Software companies advertise time-saving features which may help us believe we have saved time to complete a task such as preparing a presentation, but if time is not "saved" for the audience — if the audience wastes their time because we didn't prepare well, design the visuals well, or perform well — then what does it matter that we saved one-hour in preparing our slides?

One way I look at the spirit behind "Use less, gain more" is simply to "not waste," especially to not waste that which is not really mine to begin with such as other people's time. Preparing well can help make sure we do not waste the resource of other people's time. Another very simple way to "Use less, gain more" is to make certain our presentations or our pitches always end just a few minutes early.

Note: My wife took this snap of me in a downtown Osaka Starbucks yesterday with her mobile phone (which, by the way, is so complicated I have no idea how to use). Maeda's book is not meant to be the last word of simplicity or even to provide many etched-in-stone answers. Perhaps the odd look on my face proves that the book asks more questions than it answers...but that is not a bad thing at all. Especially while kicking back for a few hours in a café. I rather like questions.

Buy the book
Jon Maeda's website
The Laws of Simplicity website


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